Problems and solutions in learning music

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Musical Composition By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Musical Composition
Last updated: 28/09/2012
Tags: aural training, classical theory/ composition, improvisation, musical notation, musical performance

Music is a highly beneficial part of education, because not only does it divert and entertain, but it also helps to develop communication, health and is a source of much-needed inspiration to the mind. Therefore, according to Joseph Carroll, “someone deprived of such experience [music] would have artificially imposed on him a deficiency similar to that which is imposed on autistic children through an innate neurological defect”. 

Given this, it is perhaps surprising that all too often musical learning is seen through a narrow “specialist” prism – children are encouraged to focus on one particular musical discipline, normally the rigid interpretation of written music, rather than to explore the range of their musical abilities to the limit.

As a composer, this is a problem I have come across. Many extremely talented musicians claim that they “can’t write music”, with normally no reason other than a very short period of learning, normally within GCSE or A Level, which is crammed, and taught to a rigid mark scheme, the result being that creativity is neglected, and theory is not explained or understood, but taught as arbitrary rules.

However, I have yet to come across a musician who lacks the talent to write good music, and indeed it is logical that most musicians can express themselves musically in this way, because good musical performance is also intensely creative. A performer should indeed be thinking like a composer while learning a piece; deciding how to “decode” what is on the page into a sincere, personal and moving work of art.

This is but one example, which relates to my own specialist training as a composer, but there are probably many others. An immediate one which comes to mind is improvisation, which is a similar, but very distinct musical discipline, one which trains the musician for making instantaneous creative decisions, in which composition does not. Both are incredibly useful tools for training in musical performance: composition for interpretation of written music, and improvisation for developing the ability to incorporate new ideas during a performance.

The neglect of these aspects of musical training can be an adverse influence on musicians’ development, from a young age. A common problem I come across is the perception that notated music is performed in a similar way that words are read off a page. This error should be confined to those who have never learnt music, but I do not believe it is. I believe this idea is responsible for the tendency of some learners to stop playing, or slow down, the moment they make a mistake, driven by the belief that it is better to get all the notes right, than to keep playing in time.

I believe this problem would be fixed by more aural learning, and an emphasis of performance without sheet music from an early stage. During my studies at the Royal College of Music, I participated in an Aural in Professional Contexts class, for which I gained a first. This has helped equip me for teaching music from an aural starting point.

I have also had some experience of teaching music in this way in amateur theatre (Playhouse Theatre Company, Leominster). As musical director in a number of shows from 2007-9, songs were nearly always taught aurally, rather than through sheet music, and this was often a more effective way of teaching.

David Weber Classical Piano Teacher (Twickenham)

About The Author

My name is David Weber. I play and teach piano, violin, and composition to an advanced standard. I am enthusiastic about teaching music, and eager to help others realise their potential in any way I can.

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